An Open Letter to Charlotte Raven about My Footwear and My Feminism

I contain multitudes.

I contain multitudes.

An Open Letter to Charlotte Raven about My Footwear and My Feminism

By Kirsten Clodfelter

Dear Charlotte,

I appreciate that you have words of wisdom to share with the next generation of “hip” young feminists as we get dressed each morning, but the truth is, I don’t want you in my closet any more than I want Republican legislators in my vagina.

Admittedly, I am not exactly the poster girl for “girly.” Aside from the two days a week that I’m on campus to teach, I write from home, where I hang out with an awesome but not quite fashion-adept toddler. (Yes, you read that right. I have a Master’s degree and did not seek full-time employment in order to stay at home with my kid—BY CHOICE!) Most of the time, I live in yoga pants, rarely brush my hair, and sometimes go three entire days without showering—like, in a row. But I do own a pair or four of high heels, and occasionally I even wear them.

As someone who didn’t win the genetic lottery as far as grace and poise are concerned, it is true, as you argue, that I sometimes look silly when I put on said high heels. But no part of that silliness is due to the fact that while wearing them I also identify as a feminist.

I imagine many other women might agree, like, I don’t know, Hillary Clinton. Or Betty Friedan. Or Eve Ensler. Or Anita Hill. If Wendy Davis had rocked pink peep-toed Christian Louboutinis instead of her iconic pink sneaks during that heroic filibuster, she would be no less of a champion for women’s reproductive freedom. And though it might only be the very highest stripper heels causing the self-harm you mention, it seems that the bigger concern is the idea that women wear heels because female sexiness is interpreted—by men and women alike—predominately through an oppressive male gaze.

And I get that. I do. But I also wonder if in many ways that male gaze isn’t already broken by the act of acknowledging it, by a feminist—or anyone—stopping to practice genuine self-awareness when considering what’s attractive or interesting or fulfilling outside of the boundaries established by those patriarchal norms.

In this space, we might find that kick ass, grrl power Doc Martens are sexy or awesome or strong, but so too are pleather high heels. Or crocs. Or whatever. (For the record, Dr. Marten was a nazi before he staked his claim in the footwear market, so I’m just going to stick to my Rocketdogs.)

If you can’t believe this inclusive view of feminism is possible, then I’m curious to know what other behaviors I engage in that would draw criticism or ridicule. The Belle Jar has already come up with a pretty decent list, but I’m still looking for a handbook or something to clarify the following: Is it anti-feminist to tweeze my eyebrows? Wear my hair in a high, tight ponytail? Don pantyhose and pointy-toed flats? Gorge on holiday cookies? Birth a child? Go to the dentist? These intentional actions could be considered forms of self-harm too—they’re at times uncomfortable, restrictive, or bad for our bodies, and some are done solely for aesthetic value. But do you know what seems much sillier than a feminist wearing heels? One who says that other women are less feminist because of how they dress.

I agree, whole-heartedly, that in the context of feminist discourse, asking if a feminist can wear high heels is a tired, trivial question. But rather than dismiss it in the moment with a witty one-liner or, better yet, just ignore it completely in favor of talking about something more meaningful, you dedicated an entire column to parsing what a feminist looks like—to you. Fortunately, many of us already know that feminists can look like a lot of different things.

But what about the people who don’t? By anointing yourself Dress Code Monitor of the entire movement, you give permission to non-feminists to continue to objectify women and to make value judgments based on a person’s attire. These ideas perpetuate the terrible myth that a woman can’t be intelligent or taken seriously (by either gender) if men find her attractive, that the way a woman dresses or behaves makes her responsible for her sexual assault, that we need not look farther than a woman’s ankles to determine her worth. This is irresponsible and dangerous, and it definitely isn’t feminism.

As far as respecting the human body is concerned, there is a pretty significant leap between, say, wearing heels and female genital mutilation (SFW, no photos)—a type of self-harm on which our attention and concern might be better spent. And as someone who was previously married to a verbally and emotionally abusive spouse, let me be very clear in assuring you that there is absolutely no—as in fucking zero—similarity between putting on high heels and regularly being devalued, manipulated, or intimidated by someone who claims to love you.

The most troubling part of your piece, though, comes in the moment that you narrow your definition so that “[f]eminism emphatically isn’t about making women feel comfortable about bad or harmful decisions or choices.” But what you’ve missed is that feminism is emphatically about no longer universally dictating what constitutes a “bad” or “harmful” decision for another woman.

In her book, Gender Communication Theories and Analyses, Charlotte Krolokke elaborates:

Third-wave feminism manifests itself in “grrl” rhetoric, which seeks to overcome the theoretical question of equity or difference and the political question of evolution or revolution, while it challenges the notion of “universal womanhood” and embraces ambiguity, diversity, and multiplicity in its transversal theory and politics.

This is the reason that it isn’t acceptable to revoke Alisa Valdes’ feminist card because it took her awhile to recognize her abusive relationship, why it isn’t acceptable to slut-shame Miley Cyrus or Danica Patrick because of what they are or aren’t wearing, why it isn’t acceptable to make a blanket statement positing that wearing heels is a stupid decision, to offer a battle rally that “fear of seeming judgmental” shouldn’t stand in the way of others being, well, super judgmental about a person’s wardrobe.

Here’s the cool and actually not at all annoying thing about feminism that your piece left out: Women get to practice it wearing whatever the fuck we want. I can identify as a feminist while wearing a flannel button-down or stilettos. I can call myself a feminist with glittered curls or a purple mohawk, while listening to Tori Amos or Taylor Swift or Ke$ha. I can be a feminist with a baby on my hip or while getting cozy in the kitchen baking cupcakes for my feminist boyfriend, and I can do it without narrow, divisive views like yours boxing me in with the static vision of what a “real” feminist looks like.

Love ya like a sister, maybe,

Kirsten

***

Kirsten Clodfelter holds an MFA from George Mason University. Her writing has been previously published in The Iowa ReviewBrevity, and Narrative Magazine, among others. A Glimmer Train Honorable Mention and winner of the Dan Rudy Prize, her chapbook of war-impact stories, Casualties, was published this October by RopeWalk Press. Clodfelter teaches in Southern Indiana, where she lives with her partner and their awesome, hilarious daughter. KirstenClodfelter.com@MommaofMimo

Danica Patrick Can Do Whatever She Wants With Her Body

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Danica Patrick Can Do Whatever She Wants With Her Body

by Kirsten Clodfelter

 

Even if, like me, watching auto racing isn’t one of your top five (or top one hundred) favorite ways to spend a weekend, you’re probably at least aware of Danica Patrick, who in the last ten years has grown to be ubiquitous within the industry. A quick highlight of her many accomplishments: In 2009, she placed third at the Indy 500, and she won the IndyCar Series’ Japan 300 in 2008. In this year’s Daytona 500, she was the fastest pole qualifier (the first female racer ever to earn this spot) and in this same race became the first female to lead a lap in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series (she lead five). This contributed to her finishing the Daytona 500 in the top twenty percent, in eighth place. There’s plenty of debate among racing enthusiasts about whether or not these feats legitimize her as a talented driver (for the record, I’m saying they definitely do), but either way she’s the most successful woman in the history of American auto racing, and that’s a pretty big deal.

Danica Patrick is also a spokesperson for GoDaddy.com. Recently, Laura Helmuth at Slate’s Double X wrote an article expressing her outrage over Patrick’s participation in her most recent Go Daddy Super Bowl ad. Unlike previous ads in which Patrick has appeared in a towel or glittery lingerie, Patrick narrates this ad entirely covered (dressed in leggings and a leather jacket). Meanwhile, model Bar Refaeli and actor Jesse Heiman—representing beauty and brains, respectively—make out, an analogy for how perfect things can be when the sexy side and the smart side of the tech industry combine under the Go Daddy umbrella.

“Offensive commercials are everywhere,” says Helmuth, “and there’s only so much outrage to go around. But people are right to be pissed at Danica Patrick. She squandered the good will of a multitude of fans who wanted to see a woman win at what used to be a man’s game.” Helmuth builds her argument around the idea that Patrick is doing a disservice to women’s lib by agreeing to sometimes get sexy on TV, even going so far as to call her a “harmless, hair-flipping mascot.” But here’s the thing: Danica Patrick can do whatever she wants with her body—it’s her choice—that’s the beauty of feminism. There’s space for Patrick to be both a talented driver behind the wheel and a sexy, flirtatious woman behind the camera.

Helmuth calls the most recent Super Bowl ad “sexist and stupid,” and she’s correct—it is both of those things. Those adjectives can be applied to many of Go Daddy’s commercials. But I don’t see anyone arguing that Bar Refaeli needs to hang up her modeling career in favor of focusing on her current business venture in order to encourage young women to apply their intelligence and savvy toward becoming international business moguls. Helmuth, in her article’s subtitle, argues that Patrick is setting back the women’s moment, but if that’s the case, then Helmuth is most certainly guilty of doing the same, particularly when she instructs Patrick in the article’s headline to just “shut up and drive.”

I’ve seen plenty of photo spreads of tennis phenom Maria Sharapova in a bikini, and I don’t find her to be any less of an athlete for it. The talented Venus Williams stunned crowds at a 2010 French Open game when she showed up wearing a fun and unique cancan-dancer-inspired outfit that looked like something she could have picked up at Victoria’s Secret. She went on to win the match and several subsequent rounds before her elimination on day eight, but I don’t see her being called a “harmless, hair-flipping mascot.” Soccer star David Beckham and tennis ace Rafael Nadal left very, very little to the imagination with their Armani underwear campaigns, but no one claimed this made them irrelevant to their sports.

There’s another important aspect to Patrick’s actions that Helmuth completely overlooks in her article. Sports reporter Jenna Fryer comments on this aptly: “Nobody gets a job driving race cars at the top level without sponsorship, and those who successfully find a corporate partner will always get the rides. Every single week, in a series somewhere, there’s a driver on the track only after finding enough sponsorship to buy the seat for that particular race.” She also adds, quite pointedly, that “[i]t’s doubtful anyone has ever paid attention to what five-time NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson has worn to a press conference, but one publication noted that Patrick wore ‘orange hooker heels’ to last Thursday’s announcement.”

And so what if she did? Patrick faces sexism from the racing industry, from sports anchors, from celebrities, from talk show hosts, and likely from other racers. I cannot imagine telling a woman who complained about sexist behavior in her office to just buy a more conservative blouse, put her head down, and focus on her expense reports. In the face of this kind of misogyny, we don’t instruct women to shut up, to cover up, to stop being themselves, or to do anything that might make it easier for her naysayers to forget she’s a woman. In fact, outside of the most dangerous or life-threatening situations, we almost always encourage the opposite. Rather than adding another tired, critical voice about Patrick’s wardrobe choices, we should champion for Patrick to navigate both of these selves fluidly and with our full support.

We are all accountable to each other, and in the spirit of that sentiment, it’s my hope that anyone in the limelight uses that platform to do good things, to be a positive role model, to advance causes that help others, and to teach young men and women to respect themselves and each other. What I see reflected in Patrick’s actions is someone who feels capable and self-assured enough to put her best foot forward in the worlds of both racing and modeling, who doesn’t feel she has to sacrifice one interest for the other, and who is comfortable in her own skin, whether that skin is under the full coverage of a firesuit or simply a bath towel. Slut-shaming Danica Patrick for not donning only turtleneck sweaters off the track isn’t setting a great example for the next generation of potential female racers either.

In 2008, Patrick appeared in a GoDaddy commercial featuring a girl who aspires to be a professional racer. It’s my sincere hope that Patrick will take on an even bigger role in advocating for women to make their way in what has long been a “man’s industry,” but whether she does or doesn’t, she can wear pretty much whatever she wants.

Yes, many of those Go Daddy ads are cheesy and sexist. Yes, I love that Sarah Fisher runs her own racing team and that Lyn St. James founded a program to train girls to race, and yes, I hope Patrick takes a few pages from their books and does more to reach out to young women, encouraging them to forge a path into the parts of our culture that are still traditionally dominated by males. But I also think it’s time to take a step back and reflect on the purpose of international protests like slut walk, about the current push to educate both men and women that the number of layers of clothing a woman is wearing does not correspond to how deserving she is of sexual assault. We need to do better to teach our daughters and sons—the next generation of feminists—that someone’s intelligence, skill, or success does not have to be mutually exclusive from the way they choose to celebrate their body.

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Kirsten Clodfelter holds an MFA in Creative Writing from George Mason University (’10). Her work has been previously published in The Iowa Review, Brevity, Word Riot, Narrative Magazine (as the runner-up in their 2011 30 Below contest), Rock & Sling, and Hunger Mountain, among others. She is a regular blog contributor at Fogged Clarity, and she writes and teaches in Southern Indiana. You can read some facts about her at KirstenClodfelter.com.

 

Image Credit: Danica Patrick on Pole Day at Indy, 2007. Photo by Tim Wohlford. Creative Commons 2.5